The beginning of the playoffs.
And Championship Sunday – or Preliminary Finals for us Aussies.
Those three events top any fixture, regardless of the sport. Seeing your team for the first time after a seemingly endless offseason is a special, hopeful time. Cutting away the also-rans and watching the first week of any post-season (playoffs, finals) is another round of sport not to be missed.
The third – well, that’s this weekend for the National Football League.
Championship Weekend is here, the best four teams go head-to-head for a spot in the Super Bowl.
One match pits two old foes both looking for a chance at a twilight Super Bowl trophy whilst the other is between two upstart, high-octane teams rolling towards history.
New England, with its glamorous, some would say perfect quarterback in Tom Brady will venture to the Mile High City of Denver, Colorado to face a clearly declining Peyton Manning. But Manning probably has the help that he has never had throughout his long, illustrious career. He possesses his usual playmakers at the offensive skill positions but on defence, the Broncos have stars everywhere you turn.
DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller form a dominant, deadly 1-2 pass rush punch whilst Aqib Talib, Chris Harris and TJ Ward often control the secondary and anything the opposing wide receivers can throw at them.
The Patriots – flawless in the early part of the season – endured injuries and losses late in the regular season but with a returning Julian Edelman and a healthy Rob Gronkowski, Brady led the Pats to a comprehensive 27-20 win over Kansas City last week.
Ware and Miller’s ability to get pressure on Brady might determine the outcome of the game. Brady gets the ball out of his hand quicker than anyone in the NFL, often neutralising any pass rush from the defence. With few effective options in the backfield, the short-passing game – usually involving Edelman – becomes the Pats substitution for a run game.
Containing Edelman and Gronkowski is key. Brady has shown he can utilise just about any offensive team mates but 11 and 87 are standouts at their position and give Brady the ability to make big, game-changing plays.
Talib will often guard Gronkowski and had success when he was with the Patriots defending Jimmy Graham – a similar statured player to Gronk.
Chris Harris looks likely to shadow Edelman who returned for 10 catches and 100 yards, despite a few uncharacteristic drops. Edelman’s quickness, toughness and relentlessness is too much for most defenders, especially one-on-one so Harris will need to be at his Pro Bowl best to contain him.
Manning’s performance will be the final and potentially decisive factor in this game. In the win over Pittsburgh, Manning did not throw a pick nor did he manage a TD.
Against an ailing Roethlisberger, that was enough for a win but Brady won’t be so kind. Peyton will need to be Peyton to send Denver back to the big dance.
PREDICTION: New England 28, Denver 17
As the sun sets, the NFC’s best will collide.
Cam Newton has developed into one of the more complete quarterbacks in football combining his outrageous athletic prowess with ever-improving quarterback play.
His numbers aren’t always indicative of his influence on a game, particularly in short-yardage situations where Newton is near unstoppable.
The Cardinals have an excellent defensive front with playmakers all over the defence even without Defensive Player of the Year candidate Tyrann Mathieu.
Calais Campbell and Dwight Freeney will be hoping to get some push and limit Newton’s ability to gain first downs and touchdowns on the goal line.
The Carolina defence was absolutely dominant for the first 30 minutes before giving up 24 points to Seattle in the ensuing half. Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis and tone-setting linebackers who create the buzz and energy on the Panthers defence.
Josh Norman – unbeatable early in the season – has seen his own play and that of his defensive back team mates decline slightly late in the year.
Norman and his crew would want to be on song this week because the Cardinals are coming.
Larry Fitzgerald completely took over the game last week and carried the Cards to an overtime win over Green Bay. Michael Floyd chimed in with two TD’s and you know John ‘Smokey’ Brown is always a dangerous threat to rip off a 50-yard score. Rookie running back David Johnson is a solid runner but his true value also lay in his ability to catch the ball and gain yards after the catch.
Carson Palmer – high on confidence after a career-best season – is not afraid to throw the long ball and coach Bruce Arians loves his team to take multiple big play attempts.
Can the gritty Panthers keep pounding and enter the Super Bowl with only one loss to their name or will the high-flying, high-scoring Cardinals take the Red Sea to Santa Clara?
PREDICTION: Carolina 27, Arizona 24